There were conjugal visits in the slave camps of the USSR. Valiant women would travel continental distances, over weeks and months, in the hope of spending a night, with their particular enemy of the people, in the "House of meetings". The consequences of these liaisons were almost invariably tragic. "House of meetings" is about one such liaison. It is a triangular romance: two brothers fall in love with the same girl, a nineteen-year-old Jewess, in Moscow, which is poised for massacre in the gap between the war and the death of Stalin. Both brothers are arrested, and their rivalry slowly complicates itself over a decade in the slave camp above the Arctic Circle.
Yet I want to trot out cliches about his books: his vision is keen, incisive, crystal clear...yet terribly fucking bleak. I wonder where his heart is in all of this. So I could say that the blood is clearly infused into the rhythms of his sentences, the Nabokovian brilliance of his imagery, the structure of his paragraphs. But where's the love? It can't all be tied up in language and black humor.
But if love were chinks of sunshine pressing through the clouds, he has a place to hide behind through 240-odd pages: a character to hide behind genius language, as if avoiding that sunshine in the guise of a novel. Confessing everything to his privileged daughter of the west, the main character is a gulag-survivor, a professional rapist, a soldier of WWII, an older brother. But dare I say it may be easy for Amis to hide here, in this grotto of depravity, considering that subject matter. House of Meetings attempts to swallow the entire Russian character, as if Russia were the main character, and her victims were her people, and all that was and is a literary creation, from Pushkin to Amis, are her victims as well; Amis, through his confessional, seems to say: Russia did this to our characters, to her people. It made us live a nightmare and we are the wandering ghosts of that fatal nightmare.
This is a cruel book. If you get through it to the end, the letter from his brother lets the light in. But it's brief and blinding.
"House of Meetings" tells the story of two brothers, both of whom are what the Soviet authorities used to call "politicals," attempting to survive incarceration in the Soviet gulags where millions of prisoners met their deaths. It's also an exploration of how different characters might behave when faced with an interminable, society-wide catastrophe. Even the novel's narrator, his brother, Lev, and his sister-in-law, Zoya do their best to survive emotionally and economically in post-war Russia, they are constantly reminded that their deaths - from starvation, the state, or the unforgiving Russian cliimate - might come at any time. Worst of all, they knew their fate may not be tied to any of their decisions, since the Soviet system often doled out punishment and reward in unpredictable and capricious ways. The novel asks whether one can remain human, concerned with love or art or morality, under such circumstances, and whether meaningful resistance is even possible when people must fight so hard to survive. It manages to turn the entertaining, and sometimes bitterly funny, story of three individuals into an effective elegy for the million now-nameless Russians that perished under Stalin.
Amis has clearly done his research here. For millions of Soviet citizens, these weren't just academic questions, and it's discouraging to note that most of the degrading scenes in this novel were most probably drawn from the historical record. He also takes us on a very comprehensive tour of gulag life, describing in careful detail the and subtle hierarchies and bizarre economies that existed among the prisoners. After Stalin dies and the brothers are freed, Amis offers a description of the marginal economic and cultural undergrounds that provided a necessary counterpoint to a drab, unhappy society drowning in bureaucracy. He even takes time to ruminate on the nature of the Russian soul, and, even though he's an Englishman by birth, he manages to tie these familiar generalizations in with his developing narrative so that they seem both accurate and trenchantly sad. Mixed up somewhere in all of this mess, life happens to these characters. Our narrator and his two companions meet, fall in love, have sex, work and grow, even if they're sometimes forced to make terrible compromises in order to do keep themselves from perishing. "House of Meetings," is, in its own way, a testament to human survival under the harshest conditions, evidence that a good story can emerge from even the darkest chapters of history.
While the literacy and wit of the narrator may be unrealistic given his personal circumstances (no education) , it was nevertheless brilliant and entertaining. The book is quite readable, two sittings were just right. And I have to admit that the first sitting kept me up a bit late.
I did not find the story of the love triangle very interesting, suffering as it did from the usual male fantasy of a woman as nothing but a passive sexual being upon which they project their supposedly profound jealousy, violence and angst. But after all we put up with that in many great books so it is hard to fault Mr Amis for being traditional.
This is a Russian story, and the narrator survives WWII as a supposed war hero but is then sent to a slave -labour camp above the Arctic circle called Norlag. Later , his brother arrives at the same camp. Their brutal lives are described but this is in the context of their personal relationship and their shared history and the narrator's growing political consiousness. There is direct reference to Russia's leaders through the 20th century and the footnotes are a welcome aid. This is a political novel, a harsh commentary on the repressive politics of Russia, and the book ends with a discussion of Russia's dramatic fall in birhrate, perhaps a rational response to life.
However, has the same sort of emotional distance and aloofness as his memoir, Experience. Connects cerebrally but doesn't really hit any switches in the heart or gut.
But oh the prose.
I also really love the writing style itself. Some of the metaphors and language overall is very effective..
Some quotes I like:
pg 13-14 "When you are old, noise comes to you as pain. Cold comes to you as pain. It wasn't like that when I was young. The wake-up: that hurt, and went on hurting more and more. But the cold didn't hurt. By the way, try crying and swearing above the Arctic Circle in winter. All your tears will freeze fast, and even your obscenities will turn to droplets of ice and tinkle to your feet. It weakened us, it profoundly undermined us, but it didn't come to us as pain. It answered something. It was like a searchlight playing over the universe of our hate."
pg 92 "Never mind for now about famine, flood, pestilence, and war: If God really cared about us, he would have never given us religion. But this loose syllogism is easily exploded, and all questions of theodicy simply disappear-if God is a Russian."
pg 98 "Boredom is no longer the absence of emotion. It is itself an emotion , and a violent one. A silent tantrum of boredom."
pg. 122 "The massacre of the laughing men. I knew then that massacres want to happen. Massacres want there to be massacres."
pg.143 "You know, I can't find a Russian who believes it: "We wanted the best but it turned out as always." I can't find a Russian who believes that. They didn't want the best or so every Russian believes. They wanted what they got. They wanted the worst."
pg 207 "The planet has a bald patch and its central point is the Kombinat. There are no living trees in any direction for over a hundred versts. But some of the dead ones are still standing. Typically, two leafless, twigless branches remain; they point, not upward or outward, but downward, and meet at the trunk. Seen from a distance, the trees look like survivors of a concentration camp, wandering out to be counted, and shielding their shame with their hands. Above them, the watchtowers of the cableless pylons."
pg 238-239 "I had reached the end of philosophy: I knew how to die. And men don't know how to do that. It might even be that all the really staggering male exertions, both great and base, are brought on by this single incapacity. No other animal is asked to form an attitude to its own extinction. This is horribly difficult for us, and may be thought to mitigate our general notoriety...You need mass emotion-to know how to die."
He shows us how such a camp was organised that there were classes between the inmates like in real life only much more brutal.
For me this story is a must-read. Isn't it so that there are still types of Gulag on our planet but we close our eyes to not see and notice how barbarous people are treated? Isn't it still so that there are people who point to political injustice and who get muzzled by the establishment?
There were conjugal visits in the slave camps of the USSR. Valiant women would travel continental distances, over weeks and months, in the hope of spending a night, with their particular enemy of the people, in the House of Meetings. The consequences of these liaisons were almost invariably tragic. House of Meetings is about one such liaison. It is a triangular romance: two brothers fall in love with the same girl, a nineteen-year-old Jewess, in Moscow, which is poised for pogrom in the gap between the war and the death of Stalin. Both brothers are arrested, and their rivalry slowly complicates itself over a decade in the slave camp above the Arctic Circle.
To be brutally honest here I wasn't expecting a whole barrel of laughs from Amis. In that respect he didn't disappoint. What I was expecting though after reading various comments on the book..........
'Amis draws on his considerable talent, intelligence, compassion and anger in this outstanding short novel' -- Irish Times
`Amis engages compellingly and eloquently with the "Russian Soul"'
-- The Sunday Telegraph
`Amis writes with enough force to entertain even while describing depravity'
`Amis' mini Russian epic... is audacious, shocking and the best thing he's done in years' -- Evening Standard
`Martin Amis is always essential reading' -- The Times
`Some of the best, most highly charged prose of Amis's career' -- Guardian
`This is the most enjoyable Amis novel for some time' -- Sunday Herald
...... was a book that interested me, both in respect of his characters and their experiences in the Soviet Gulag. This didn't happen in either instance.
I couldn't have cared less - in fact after about 50 pages into this short novel I was fervently wishing that the brothers and anyone they crossed paths with had been exterminated on page 1 or 2...........at which point the book could have hopefully ended.
Had it been twice the length, I would have been severely tempted to give up on it, something I'm loathe to do for several reasons.
A) It feels like the author has beaten me.
B) The book might just get better, if I read a few pages more, it will turn a corner surely.
C) A quest for understanding - a bit like the emperor's clothes if all these other people see gold why am I viewing coal dust? What aren't I getting?
Previously I have read Amis's non-fiction book, The Second Plane, which was a collection of articles and essays he wrote about post-9/11. This was readable and enjoyable and interesting - everything that House Of Meetings wasn't.
Maybe I lack understanding, intellect or acumen.........to get what he was driving at in the book. If so, it's not something I'll lose any sleep over. There are hundreds of other books on my TBR Mountain that I will enjoy much more.
What does concern me slightly, and I have no-one else to blame but myself, is the 10 or so other Amis books on the pile to be read......Pregnant Widow, Dead Babies, Yellow Dog, Money etc etc............they can't all be as turgid can they?
In summary, in case I have sat on the fence here......an absolute stinker of a book.
Quite the worst thing I've read since Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller earlier this year.
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I paid a pound for this at a charity shop, which on reflection was about 90p too much.